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It May Still Not Be Too Late to Save Paris

November 20th, 2012

The group SOS Paris has once again raised the alarm about skyscrapers proposed for this great city. The mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, backed by the city council, is pushing to allow the construction of a series of out-of-scale buildings within the historic center of the city that threaten to do to Paris what similar buildings over the last decades have done to London – turn it into a preposterous “wannabe” skyscraper city in competition with the likes of Shanghai and Abu Dhabi.

Here is how you can help: Read Mary Campbell Gallagher’s illustrated post on the Classicist blog and join the letter-writing campaign. You can also read her Forum in the June 2011 issue of Traditional Building magazine. I urge all the readers of this column to write to Mayor Delanoë letting him know that Paris doesn’t need towers.

The argument advanced by the champions of tall buildings is always the same, whether in Paris, London, New York or Rome: The city needs skyscrapers because it needs to increase densities, business corporations will move elsewhere if the office space isn’t provided, there is an urgent need for new housing in the city, the new buildings are going to be “green” and – hey – skyscrapers are cool and represent progress and modernity. It is abundantly clear to anyone without a vested interest in these boondoggles that none of these arguments makes any sense.

The best way to increase densities is to build sensibly, infilling already developed areas with new fabric that respects the historical patterns of the traditional city. Skyscrapers do not always increase density, and some of the densest neighborhoods in the world, like the center of Paris or Amsterdam, are no more than four or five stories tall. Most historic cities are already dense. If new towers are needed for some other reason, build them well outside historic districts.

It is unlikely that business corporations that have a real interest in being in Paris will move away because there are no skyscrapers ready to occupy, and if they are hungry for space, new buildings as tall as you like could be built in enclaves outside the center, continuing the pattern of such developments as La Défense and Paris Rive Gauche – those architectural zoos dedicated to exhibiting collections of aberrant towers utterly incapable of composing a city – where they will be in good company. They certainly do not have to build in areas that are essential components of the architectural patrimony of all humanity.

Tall buildings like London’s recently completed “Shard” were justified by their promoters as addressing the need to increase the supply of housing, but now we know that the expense of such buildings makes them out of reach for all but international jet-setting corporate executives and financiers whose top priority is ready access to spas and restaurants without having to leave the building. Not one skyscraper has been built anywhere to my knowledge to house people who were not prepared to pay millions of dollars for an apartment, so the housing issue is bogus.

Then there is the myth of the “green” skyscraper, a myth that has proved largely unsubstantiated by the actual performance of glass towers over a longer term. So far, most tall buildings have failed to sustain the energy consumption claims made for them by their designers. Given the new energy standards—always being raised inEurope—it will soon be very difficult to build new buildings with glass skins—however “hi-tech” they may be—that can compete with old-fashioned masonry. More important, those who tout the sustainability of skyscrapers never seem to include in their calculations the effects these buildings have on the cities where they are built, the impacts on transportation, land use and other resources beyond the building’s footprint.

Finally, there is the sentimental justification that skyscrapers are emblems of modernity. Nonsense. Skyscrapers are emblems of failure: environmental, imaginative, social, economic and cultural. As many of my New Urbanist colleagues have described them, they are high-rise gated communities and vertical cul-de-sacs.

Paris, like other places, wants to think it is in the center of innovative and creative new architecture – and indeed it should be – but why does that mean we have to confront projects whose design has nothing whatsoever to do with the character of the city for which they are proposed? What aspects of the tower designs proposed for Paris by Herzog & DeMeuron, Renzo Piano or Jean Nouvel would not be equally at home (or equally absurd) anywhere else? In what way will any of these preposterous objects contribute to the quality of city life? Have we learned nothing since Le Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin that proposed demolishing all of central Paris(except for a handful of monuments like the Louvre and Notre-Dame) and replacing it with a gridded array of high-rise apartment blocks? That vision, now nearly a century old, seems still to have a grip on the brains of many people who should know better.

On the contrary, what is really cool and an emblem of modernity is real city life, the kind of urbanity and freedom that can only come from a city any pedestrian can comprehend and where strangers meet and interact in public space – in other words, in cities like the historic center of Paris. The most innovative and revolutionary thing the architects could do now would be to make more of Paris, not less.

Whoever would have imagined that Paris, of all places, would succumb to the kind of boosterism and provincialism that some second- or third-rate city might fall prey to? Paris doesn’t need to impress anyone with faceless, could-be-anywhere new architecture. Leave that to the upstart cities still trying to put themselves on the map. Paris was right to corral these feral buildings in clumps outside the center, and it should continue this policy, making new clumps if needed, but well outside the periphérique.

Here is the address to send your letter.
Mr. Bertrand Delanoë (Note the two dots over the “e”)
Mayor of Paris
Place de l’Hôtel de Ville
Paris, France
75004

U.S.postage is $1.05 or three Forever stamps. Be sure to include your return address inside and on the envelope.

Here is a template letter you can use if you like.

Dear Mr. Delanoë,

There is no advantage in making Paris look like every other city in the world.
Paris is unique!
Paris is Paris!
Skyscrapers will diminish Paris in the eyes of the world.
Please let Paris be Paris!

Sincerely, (or, if you prefer, Sincerement)

Your name

Many thanks again to Mary Campbell Gallagher and bon chance!

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